Glass treasures from Winnipeg’s brewing past exposed as river level plummets

For several weeks this spring, as the sun swung around a grove of trees hugging a bowed bank of the Red River in south Osborne, it set off a turquoise and tawny glimmer.

Historically low river levels in Winnipeg had exposed a sunken cache from the city’s past at the end of Mulvey Avenue.

A carpet of thick fragments of antique bottles and ceramic jugs — mired in river mud and zebra mussels — covered a wide swath of normally submerged waterfront.

The relics are from an era that straddled the turn of the 20th century, when breweries and bottling plants dotted the banks of the Red and Assiniboine rivers and the long-gone Colony Creek.

The latter once wriggled from north of Portage Avenue along Memorial Boulevard, and then adjacent to Colony Street before joining the Assiniboine.

A map shows the location of Colony Creek in June 1873, with some later streets superimposed. The arrow indicates the location of the Winnipeg Brewery. (William Douglas, The House of Shea: The Story of a Pioneer Industry)

Its only remnant now is a dip in Broadway, between All Saints Anglican Church and Canada Life, where the creek’s 15-metre wide coulee used to cross.

Many of the bottles laid bare along the Red contained embossing — raised lettering and designs — as well as painted labels from the former Blackwood’s brewing plant at the centre of a modest warehouse district tucked behind the current-day Osborne rapid transit station.

The glass beach was a treasure trove for artists like Heather Komus, who first discovered it poking out of the snow during a walk along the frozen bank.

“It’s very exciting and triggers my imagination,” she said.

The original Blackwood’s brewery as seen in 1904, one year after it was built at 409 Mulvey Avenue East. (Western Canada Pictorial Index/Manitoba Free Press)

“On a large flat rock there were several pieces of a Blackwood’s ginger beer bottle, as though someone was trying to put the pieces back together,” Komus said via an email interview.

“Like a puzzle, it just begged to be put together, so I took off my mittens and made my attempt but they weren’t the right pieces and there were so many similar ones nearby that it quickly became impossible.”

Heather Komus looks over one of her finds. (Submitted by Jennifer Still)

She has done beachcombing in the past but was able to explore the banks in ways not possible in other years.

Recently, the glass beach was at a level below the gnarled roots of trees, blanched by years typically spent underwater.

Record low levels

In Winnipeg, river levels are measured by the height in feet of the water above normal winter ice levels — the zero mark — at the James Avenue pumping station.

The Red River is typically 6.5 feet James in summer, and slightly lower at this time of year. According to the province, the lowest level on record at this time was in 1981, with a level of 4.76 feet.

That was obliterated last Friday when the level dipped to just 1.73 feet James.

The thick chunks of antique bottles were mired in river mud and zebra mussels across a wide swath of normally submerged waterfront. (Submitted by Jennifer Still)

But now the levels are beginning to climb again with the operation of the St. Andrews lock and dam, which keeps river levels navigable. 

As a result, Blackwood’s beach is again being reclaimed by the water — but not before Komus was able to secure a few pieces.

“I’m most excited by the remnants that really convey another time, like a shard of glass from a rectangular cod liver oil bottle or the diversity in shapes and colours of glass,” she said.

Ginger beer bottles from early Winnipeg breweries. A Blackwood’s bottle can be seen on the left. (Winnipeg Tribune Collection/University of Manitoba Archives)

A Blackwood’s ginger beer bottle found along the exposed glass beach. (Submitted by Jennifer Still)

“I enjoy the old-fashioned language on the Blackwood’s ginger beer bottle: ‘Prepared from an old and valuable recipe.’

“The text on the Blackwood’s Bottle’s has a serious tone, that even though someone purchased the drink, they didn’t buy the bottle, which is property of Blackwood’s and must be returned.”

The brewery complex as seen from across the river in 1970. (Architectural Survey/Archives of Manitoba)

Except there is nowhere to return it. The building, long abandoned, was eventually demolished in the early 2000s.

The factory was, according to a 2002 report by City of Winnipeg heritage officer Murray Peterson,  at that point the city’s last remaining brewing building from the industry’s early boom.

Links to Wolseley Expedition

The first brewery on the site was built in 1883 by Maj. Stewart Mulvey, a member of the Wolseley Expedition that came west from Ontario to confront Louis Riel’s provisional government in 1870, according to Murray’s report.

He remained in Winnipeg and became one of the city’s first school trustees, then a city councillor in Fort Rouge and later a provincial MLA.

He sold the brewery in 1888 and it went through several owners — including E.L. Drewry, who would become one of the city’s most famous brewers. William Blackwood took it over in 1903, while Drewry maintained a brewery further down river, next to where the Redwood bridge would be built.

The Pellisier’s brewery, showing the storefront with an old Club beer billboard on it, in 1970. (Architectural Survey/Archives of Manitoba)

Blackwood poured everything into the site on what was then called Mulvey Avenue East. The original brewery was taken down and a towering new one constructed.

It then went through a number of additions and expansions over the next decade, eventually becoming a cluster of seven connected buildings with a retail annex.

Two separate warehouse-sized buildings were added to the property in 1912, with one serving as a soda and mineral water factory and the other a pickle factory.

The main building of the brewery, as seen in 2002, shortly before its demolition. (Murray Peterson)

Blackwood sold the complex just after the First World War and it became the Pelissier Brewery. That was taken over in 1976 by Labatt’s, which continued brewing at the location until 1980.

It sold the building to an automotive company that remained only briefly, leaving it vacant in the mid-1990s and the target of repeated vandalism.

The city took it over for unpaid taxes and tore it down about 10 years later.

The former Blackwood’s brewery complex. The area bordered in yellow is where the brewery once stood. The blue area is the former soda and mineral water factory (now Mulvey Flea Market) and the one in orange is the former pickle factory (now Dominion Auctions and CJ Storage). (Google Satellite View)

Although the main brewery is gone, the other two remain.

The soda and mineral water factory is now the South Osborne Exchange, which houses the Mulvey Flea Market. The old pickle factory is a blue warehouse for Dominion Auctions and CJ Storage.

And then there are the turquoise pieces of the past being swallowed once again by the river — and those with a new future in Komus’s hands.

“My art practice involves a lot of processes so it’s hard to know right now where these discoveries will take me,” she said.